John Mayall looks alternately dignified and defiant in the photos that adorn Tough. The music, however, is permeated with a consistent resolve. Displaying his usual emotionalism, the Godfather of British Blues offers an album largely comprised of covers recorded with an almost entirely new band.
The wisdom of his concept(s) becomes apparent on the very first track, "Nothing to Do with Love." This atmospheric number features not just the familiar wail of Mayall's harmonica, but the lead guitar of Rocky Athasthe latest in a string of guitar prodigies Mayall has discovered over the years. The Texas native makes a case for himself on "Playing with a Losing Hand" and throughout the disc, as an axeman worth watching.
Keyboardist Tom Canning is the lone holdover from the various most recent incarnations of Bluesbreakers, and his electric organ swoops its way over the tighten-up funk rhythm of "Just What You're Looking For," which is right where the surety of the Greg Rzab (bass) Jay Davenport (drums) rhythm section begins to impress. Mayall's self-production doesn't allow anything fancy, but by collaborating with engineer Michael Aarvold to create such a clean resonant mix, he further fosters the profile of the band in a most pragmatic sense: they can always be heard, clearly individually and collectively.
John Mayall has a tendency to succumb to the trite lyric when he tries too hard to make a point, with "An Eye for An Eye" a case in point. But the easygoing shuffle of the quintet is sufficiently winning to compensate: the musicianship from Athas and Mayall himself on piano is particularly tasty. As he and his comrades inject what is so often a stolid progression with lighthearted, authentic joy, the music also contrasts the acoustic guitars at the heart of the following track; "How Far Down," sounds even more ominous in this juxtaposition, as Mayall's vocal is particularly pointed in tone.
As befits its title, Tough is one of the more hard-rocking efforts Mayall's released in recent years. "Train to My Heart," which features more bristling lead work from Athas, reinforces that impression, as does the twelve-bar blues that follows; on "Slow Train to Nowhere," the electric guitar leads alternate with piano and organ fills to create as genuine an expression of Mayall's vulnerability as anything on the album.
It's one of three self-composed piece on this nearly hour-long CD. In its debt to The Rolling Stones, among others, "That Good Old Rockin' Blues" might sound precious in the hands of a musician not so deeply schooled in the genre as this man. Yet any bluesman worth his salt would be proud to write and perform the ghostly current events story of "Tough Times Ahead," especially fronting a band as self-assured as this.
Personnel: John Mayall: keyboards, organ, harmonica, guitar, vocals; Tom Canning: organ, piano; Rocky Athas: guitar; Greg Rzab: bass guitar; Jay Davenport: drums.